Recent interpretations of Zoroastrian belief (By Mary Boyce)

Recent interpretations of Zoroastrian belief (By Mary Boyce) :

For those Parsis in India who remained actively devout, and still sought ways of interpreting their ancient faith, there was naturally an inclination now to turn away from a Christian approach, and seek affinities in Indian religion. Some, accustomed by theosophy to linking different creeds, grafted on to their Zoroastrianism veneration for modern ‘gurus’ such as Meher Baba, who offered a variery of paths to spiritual salvation; and pictures of such sages came to adorn many Parsi homes, beside idealized portraits of their own prophet. Others sought to interpret the Avesta in the light of .the Vedas, and the Parsi Association of Calcutta went so far as to publish, in 1967,a translation of the Gathas by a Hindu scholar who identified the Avesta as the missing ‘fifth Veda’, and saw Zoroaster’s own Gathas as forming the earliest scripture of the Chishti cult. A more solid work was that of Irach Taraporewala, ‘The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra’ published in 195 1 . In this the author (a lawyer) first gave a literal translation of each Gatha, which essentially, like that of Pur-Davud, followed Bartholomae’s rendering, and then, after an interpretive commentary, provided a second, free translation, designed to render the ‘thought’ behind the actual words, and to show (as he said, p. xi) ‘how all the great ideas I had so highly admired in Sanskrit Scriptures were also discoverable in the Avesta’. Although in general Taraporewala rejected European translations as too literal, he adopted unquestioningly the European assumption that ‘it would, of course, be utterly wrong to read the ideas of Later Zoroastrian Theology into the Gathas’ (p. xii); and this assumption allowed his second rendering to be almost as free and subjective as those of the occultists. Since then, other translations of the Gathas have been made by Parsi and Irani laymen, who have all proceeded in this same way, of taking an existing translation and re-interpreting it in the light of their own inspired thoughts . The high priests of the Anjoman and Wadia Atash Bahrams of Bombay (Dastur Kaikhosroo Jamasp Asa and Dastur Firoze Kotwal) have continued the exacting task of editing and publishing Pahlavi texts – an activity which has been welcomed by the international academic community; but Avestan studies have been neglected of late by trained Parsi scholars , probably because of the daunting philological requirements for their pursuit.
The problem of interpreting the Gathas lies at the heart of the theological difficulties which confront modern Zoroastrians . Clearly In the twentieth century whatever the doctrines were which their prophet taught over 3000 years ago, these need to be re-interpreted for his contemporary followers, as do the teachings of all other prophets for their own communities. What is unusual in the case of Zoroastrianism is the wide diversity of opinion as to what their prophet originally taught, let alone how this should be understood today ; and the blame for this confusion lies largely with the West, and the ruthless self-confidence of nineteenth-century scholars and missionaries . The doctrines of the faith, adumbrated only in the Gathas , are made clear in the tradition, preserved in the surviving Avestan and Pahlavi books; but down to the nineteenth century their testimony, inaccessible to most of the community, was supplemented by the magisterium of the living Zoroastrian church. It was the abrupt impact of Western culture which shattered the confidence of many Parsis in this, making them, like juddins, concentrate on the Gathas, seeking Zoroaster’s own message there; but without the key provided by the tradition these ancient devotional texts remained bafflingly enigmatic, and so the versions of them, whether produced by Parsis, Iranis, or Western scholars, varied so much from one another that they caused bewilderment. Matters have now been further complicated with the reversal by Western scholars of nineteenth-century assumptions, because of slow recognition of the subtle allusions in the Gathas to the links between the Amahraspands and their creations, to the lesser yazatas and to the essential rituals of the faith. So the West has now destroyed the basis which it originally provided for Parsi reformists, although this has yet to be realized Within the community itself. A few of the orthodox continue serenely untroubled by all this; but many Zoroastrians, in a literate age, long for a simple, noble, lucid scripture on which to base a unified faith, and this is a longing which seems doomed to remain unfulfilled, because of the immense antiquity of their tradition.
Western attacks on this tradition were damaging not only to doctrinal unity but also to communal pride; for once the reformists had accepted the theory that their prophet’s teachings were early corrupted, then they had to think that their ancestors had lived by, and in many cases suffered and died for, beliefs which were false. Far from honouring them for faithfulness, they found themselves reproaching them for error. Moreover, by this theory, Zoroaster’s own doctrines could have had no influence on religious history, having been almost at once lost to sight. The reformists have thus had In the twentieth century to abandon a great heritage. The orthodox were not deprived in this way; but under attack they tended to entrench themselves behind orthopraxy, and to conduct the battle over observances rather than doctrine. So they too gave no thought to the influence which their religion has had upon other faiths – indeed such considerations are basically irrelevant for those who believe that they are themselves engaged in preserving God’s true revelation to mankind. Yet aware­ ness of the historical facts might well be a source of strength and proper pride to others in a small community, struggling not to be engulfed in the general sea of humanity.

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